Japanese can be a complicated language and achieving fluency is an impressive feat itself. A single mispronounced syllable can turn one word into something entirely different. Case in point: “okashi” versus “okashii”, where the former refers to “sweets” while the latter means “funny” or “ridiculous”.
That’s why many travellers are hesitant to speak up – butcher a word and you might earn a confused look from the waiter. You might even mess up your orders, trigger your food allergies, and spend your vacation sulking on the hospital bed. Oof.
But fear not, for we’ve put together 15 simple yet essential phrases to help you level up from noob to pro in Japanese. With romanisations included, you can master these phrases in no time at all.
Download this infographic to refer to for your next Japan trip.
Image credit: Banter Snaps
In Japanese: ここで食べます
How to pronounce: Koko-day ta-bae-mahs
For foodies, no trip to Japan is complete without dining at must-eat spots on their food bucket list. With this phrase, you too can strut into a restaurant and confidently order any dish you want, be it the silkiest cup of chawanmushi or a plate of Japan’s exquisite Grade 5 Kobe beef.
Tip: On days when eating within the comforts of your accommodation sounds like the perfect plan, use the following phrase to ask for takeaway:
In Japanese: 持って帰ります (Motte kaerimasu)
How to pronounce: moht-teh kah-eh-ree-mahs
In Japanese: ___です
How to pronounce: ___dess
Relaying the correct number of people in your party to the waiter is the second order of business. Confuse the poor waiter with the wrong vocabulary and you might end up squeezing your travel mates into a small table. To play it safe, refer to the table below as you’re queueing up for a seat at a restaurant:
Image credit: Kristaps Solims
In Japanese: 禁煙席でお願いします
How to pronounce: Keen-yen say-key deh oh-nay-guy-she-mahs
Divided into smoking (kitsuen) and non-smoking (kinen) corners, most Japanese restaurants allow diners to smoke at designated areas during meals. Health-conscious diners can choose to steer clear from secondhand smoke by asking for a non-smoking table instead.
Image adapted from: Daria Shevtsova
In Japanese: 英語のメニューがありますか?
How to pronounce: Eh-go no men-you ah-ri-mahs-ka?
Busy districts like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ginza are popular with locals and tourists alike. Because these places are frequented by foreigners, restaurants here are well-equipped to serve the gaijin (foreigner) crowd. Expect foreigner-friendly cues like images of food on the wall, English labels, and most importantly, English menus.
But if you don’t see one, here’s your chance to flex your newfound Japanese skills.
Image credit: ELEVATE
In Japanese: お勧めは何ですか?
How to pronounce: Oh-su-su-meh wah nun-desk-ka?
If you can’t make up your mind or are stuck with an incomprehensible Japanese menu, cut to the chase and ask for their signature dishes instead.
Adventurous foodies can take a leap of faith and leave your dinner planS completely in the hands of the in-house chef. After all, this is one of many surefire ways to ensure a gastronomical experience. While this phrase works best if you have a Japanese-speaking friend who can translate the chef’s recommendations for you, most chefs and waitstaff in tourist-y areas have a rudimentary command of English and can give you a rough idea of what’s to be served.
Image credit: yuutapas.com
In Japanese: これをお願いします
How to pronounce: Core-ray oh oh-nay-gah-yi-she-mahs
Should Lady Luck be on your side, the waiter might whip out a menu with images in HD. Now all you have to do is point the most appealing dish in print and say the magic words: “kore oh onegaishimasu”.
Seafood is a common food allergen
Image credit: Alex Knight
In Japanese: ___アレルギーがあります
How to pronounce: ___ ahh-ray-rue-ghee gah ah-ri-mahs
Don’t let your allergies get in the way of your feasting sesh. A must to include in your Japanese word bank, be sure to communicate your allergies to the waiter clearly or you might risk putting your life in danger. We’ve also gathered a list of common food allergens to fast track your research:
International Allergy Cards
Image Credits: www.foodallergy.org
But if you have trouble committing it to memory or saying it right, here’s a back-up plan – print out an International Allergy Card before jetting off to Japan. Make sure to Google search and add on to the card should your allergens fail to make it to the list above.
In Japanese: ___は食べられません
How to pronounce: ___ wah tar-beh-ra-re-mah-sen
This phrase roughly translates to “I can’t eat ___. It’s a great way to convey any food restrictions due to health concerns or religious reasons.
Image credit: Fábio Alves
In Japanese: 大盛り
How to pronounce: ___ oh-moh-ree day ku-da-sai
Burgers and fries aren’t the only things you can upsize. In Japan, casual eating spots like ramen stands and street food markets offer selections of different portion sizes. For those with a bottomless pit for a stomach, you can now stave off your hunger pangs and ask for a larger portion with this power phrase.
In Japanese: どれぐらいかかりますか?
How to pronounce: Doh-ray-gu-ra-ee ka-ka-ree mahs-ka?
If you managed to squeeze time for one last meal before your flight is due, make sure to ask for the ETA of your meal first. You certainly don’t want to spend ages waiting for your food and end up missing your flight!
Image credit: Pete Birskinshaw
In Japanese: ベジタリアンメニューありますか?
How to pronounce: Beh-gee-teh-ree-an menu ah-ri-mahs-ka?
The Japanese word for “vegetarian” sounds almost like its English counterpart, so it’ll be super easy to remember. And while restaurants dedicated to serving vegetarian cuisine may be scarce in Japan, there are places that offer vegetarian-friendly and meat-free dishes on the menu.
In Japanese: おかわり
How to pronounce: Oh-kah-wah-ree
For all you hangry folks out there who hate spending too much on eating out, only to still feel hungry after a meal, this phrase is for you. Head to any family restaurant (also called famiresu) in Japan and opt for their menu sets where you’ll get to enjoy free or cheap refills of soft drinks, miso soup and rice. It’s a great way to fill yourself up without breaking the bank.
In Japanese: 請求書お願いします
How to pronounce: Oh-kai-kay oh-nay-gah-yi-she-mahs
Prolonged eye contact may work just fine for getting the bill in many places, but it doesn’t exactly fly in Japan. It can be interpreted as an aggressive and rude act, and the waiters will most likely look away in discomfort.
Instead, raise your hand and ask for the bill with the phrase above.
Japanese men often cross both of their index fingers to ask for the bill when dining at an izakaya (Japanese bar that serves drinks and snacks). Do keep in mind that this gesture won’t work in other dining establishments and is only used by men.
Tip: Ditch your credit cards as most restaurants in Japan are still reliant on cash transactions.
In Japanese: トイレはどこですか？
How to pronounce: Toh-ee-ray wah doh-ko desk-ka?
Visiting the washroom has become a rite of passage for most patrons after every dining venture. When nature calls, knowing the right words will save you from potentially awkward situations, including wetting your pants.
In Japanese: ごちそうさま
How to pronounce: Go-chee-sow-sah-mah
There are many ways to express your appreciation after a good meal – tipping, posting positive reviews on Tripadvisor, becoming a regular patron, and so on. But in Japan, the best way to relay your gratitude is to give a simple word of thanks on your way out.
Japan is governed by its unique set of rules and norms, so it’s always good to read up on the dos and don’ts before your trip to Japan. With this easy-to-digest guide, these 15 phrases will tide you over any language difficulties whenever you eat out.
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